Craig Leuthold, a former Knox County commissioner, was named by the current Knox County Commission Monday as trustee, filling the seat vacated when John J. Duncan III resigned July 2 after pleading guilty to a low-level felony for paying himself and staffers more than $18,000 in bonuses he knew they didn’t earn.
From the News Sentinel: Leuthold said he would open the bookkeeping.
“I’m going to work toward changing morale,” he said. “I’m going to be transparent.”
Former Trustee Mike Lowe held office from 1994 until he was term-limited by the state Supreme Court in 2007. He surrendered to authorities in April 2012 amid grand jury indictments on multiple counts of felony theft of more than $60,000. The grand jury also indicted four others from the county’s tax collection department.
Leuthold worked under Lowe, primarily in satellite offices. He said he would draw on his familiarity with the office in his approach during his term that lasts slightly more than a year. The office will be up for election in August 2014.
Given the troubled history of the office, commissioners wanted candidates to promise openness. They differed on whether they wanted a political outsider or someone connected to county government.
Monday’s discussions included some political theatrics by commissioners, including a postponement proposal to allow absent Commissioner Mike Brown to join in the vote in August.
Former Tennessee Gov. Winfield Dunn, who in 1971 signed a bill into law that changed the way the state selects appeals judges, on Friday said that enacting the bill was a mistake.
From The Tennessean:
“At the time I signed it, I felt constrained by many other issues,” Dunn said. “I regret signing the retention election bill.”
Those comments followed a hearing at the Tennessee Supreme Court in which attorney John Jay Hooker, merciless critic of judicial appointments, presented his argument that state law says appeals judges ought to be elected by voters, not appointed. It’s a position Hooker has championed in court but lost so many times that, some joke, everyone has lost count — even Hooker himself.
“If you want to wear those black robes, not just for this afternoon, you have to run for it, and run the risk of losing,” Hooker said in a theatrical performance, punctuated by finger wags and podium pounds. “It’s not fun to lose. I’ve become a professional at it.”
The judges were not the typical members of the state’s high. Instead, they were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam after Hooker complained that the usual justices shouldn’t hear the case since they were all chosen through the current system.
Hooker, a former Democratic candidate for governor who lost to Dunn, has sued the state and asked the special court to reverse a 1973 decision, Higgins v. Dunn, which supported the current system.
…Attorney Janet Kleinfelter, representing the state, said it was not the first time but should be the last time the state defends the way appeals judges are elected, known formally as the Tennessee Plan.
Kleinfelter pointed out that the system has twice held up on appeal, and that other state supreme courts, such as Georgia’s, have concluded that appointing appeals judges is constitutional.
“This judicial system is entitled to finality,” Kleinfelter said.
A scaled-down version of the Farm Bill passed the US House Thursday, and Tennessee’s Congressional delegation voted along strict party lines today–with one exception. So reports WPLN.
Knoxville Representative John Duncan is one of only 12 Republicans voting no.
The bill strips out any language governing food stamps, and that’s a big reason why Democrats don’t like it.
Duncan takes issue with a measure that would expand crop insurance for farmers.
“You start a small business you have to pay 100% of your insurance, and then on top of that you
From a Wasnington Post blog, here’s a list: The dozen GOP lawmakers who bucked the party were Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Paul Cook (Calif.), Ron DeSantis (Fla.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Phil Gingrey (Ga.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Walter Jones (N.C.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Matt Salmon (Ariz.) and Mark Sanford (S.C.).
New Republic has an interesting, Tennessee-focused article on Michelle Rhee and StudentsFrist’s efforts in the state where her ex-husband is commissioner of education. Lots of attention to Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, who got a big chunk of StudentsFirst money in his re-election campaign.
An excerpt: Nowhere has her influence been felt more acutely than in Tennessee, where campaigns are a bargain and where legislators eager to amend the state’s dismal record on education have made it a mecca for reformers. To Rhee the mission also has a personal angle: Her ex-husband, Kevin Huffman, is commissioner of the state Department of Education and her two daughters attend school in Nashville.
In 2011-2012, her group spent $533,000 on over 60 local politicians, outspending the main teachers’ union by a third and becoming Tennessee’s biggest source of campaign money outside of the party PACs, according to election filings. Added to the $200,000-$300,000 that allied groups like Stand for Children and the Tennessee Federation for Children paid out, the result has been a gush of education-reform money taking over the state’s politics.
“They’ve become like the gun lobby in Tennessee,” a former aide to a top Nashville politician told me. “Everybody is scared of the NRA. It’s the same way with these education reform people.”
…Though the group does not disclose its donors, public filings reveal that much of its money comes from hedge fund titans. On April 30, the Walton Family Foundation announced it would give Rhee $8 million over the next two years. Rhee hinted in her book that leveraged-buyout king Ted Forstmann had pledged tens of millions as well.
In Tennessee, StudentsFirst gave money to more candidates–55 legislative and nine school board candidates–than it did in any other state this past election cycle. Of those 55 candidates, though, only seven were Democrats. StudentsFirst spokesperson Hari Sevugan (who has since quit the organization) told me last year that this was simply a fact of politics in Tennessee, where the GOP controls two-thirds of both houses in the General Assembly. But nationwide, Rhee has had trouble finding Democrats to stand with her. Of the 105 candidates across 12 states that she supported in general elections in 2012, 92 were Republican.
These lopsided numbers bolster the left’s loudest complaint about Rhee of late: Though she claims Democratic values and the bipartisan mantle, Republicans dominate the ranks of StudentsFirst’s donors and of those it donates to. Rhee blames the imbalance on a lack of courage among Democrats, telling newspapers that many had pledged their support privately but refused to go public for fear of reprisals from the teachers’ unions. But those Democrats willing to align themselvse with her cause often find themselves lavishly rewarded.
Knox County Trustee John Duncan III pleaded guilty today in Criminal Court to a felony charge of official misconduct and resigned from office, reports the News Sentinel. He entered the plea by information, which means he agreed to skip a grand jury review.
He received a one-year probation and may apply for diversion.
He must cooperate with “this” and “any other probes,” according to his plea agreement taken by Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz.
His father, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, said after the hearing, “We can rely on our faith to get on with our future.”
He declined further comment.
Prosecutor Bill Bright said that Duncan had then-attorney Chad Tindell file a salary lawsuit on Sept. 30, 2010, approving bonuses of $3,000 each for himself and five others, and a $2,000 bonus for a sixth staffer for completing a training program that none of them had, in fact, completed.
Duncan, as part of the plea, is specifically agreeing to participate in the probes of the other employees who received bonuses who have not yet been charged.
Bright alleged that Duncan lied to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation by saying that no one ever told him that it was improper to collect bonuses before completion of the training program.
However, three employees told the TBI that they had, in fact, warned Duncan against trying to collect bonuses without having completed the training.
In February, Tindell received judicial diversion on a misdemeanor charge connected to his participation in the bonus program that let some employees in the Trustee’s Office receive extra money for educational studies they never completed. Tindell worked more than two years as the tax attorney for the Trustee’s Office before leaving early this year. He can seek to wipe his record clean if he abides by the terms of his probation.
NASHVILLE – John Jay Hooker has filed a lawsuit aimed at blocking the appointment of successors to three appeals court judges who plan to retire Aug. 31, 2014, contending move will wrongfully deny voters the right to make choices in the Aug. 7, 2014, election.
“They have created a situation so there will be no election for their seats,” said Hooker, 82, a lawyer and past candidate for multiple political offices who has waged a series of legal battles against the state’s judicial selection system. “The state Constitution requires that there be an election… They are unconstitutionally calling off an election.”
The state’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which will cease to exist at the end of this month, has announced plans to select nominees to fill the three appeal court seats before then and send them to Gov. Bill Haslam.
Those announcing plans to retire effective Aug. 31, 2014, are Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Cottrell of Nashville, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joseph Tipton of Knoxville and Court of Appeals Judge Alan Highers of Memphis. The commission plans hearings June 27, 28 and 29 to select nominees.
Haslam intends to accept the nominations and make the appointments after “an appropriate amount of time” to review the nominees and make a decision, according to a gubernatorial spokesman.
Hooker’s lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Circuit Court, names Haslam, Tom Lawless, chairman of the Judicial Nominating Commission, and state Attorney General Bob Cooper as defendants. The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the commission submitting nominees and the governor acting on them.
Hooker said proceedings in the case will be before Circuit Court Judge Hamilton Gayden, who also presided over a separate recent Hooker lawsuit – one of several filed over the years – that challenged to system for selecting judges of the state Supreme Court and appeals courts.
Gayden ruled against Hooker on most points in that lawsuit, but found he was correct in one assertion – that the Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals judges should be assigned districts for election rather than be elected in a statewide vote.
A specially appointed state Supreme Court will hear arguments July 19 on that case. The state’s sitting Supreme Court justices all recused themselves from hearing the case.
No hearing has been scheduled yet in the new Hooker lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Cooper said the attorney general’s office had not served with a copy of the lawsuit Wednesday and would have no comment.
– Note: Hooker filed a copy of this story, which appeared earlier in the News Sentinel and this blog, as an exhibit in his new lawsuit.
Responding to an online petition drive launched by an 11-year-old Oak Ridge boy, StudentsFirst has rescinded its designation of state Rep. John Ragan as a ‘reformer of the year” because he sponsored the so-called “the don’t say gay bill.”
“Regardless of when Representative Ragan was named a “Reformer of the Year” by our organization, his introduction of ill-conceived and harmful legislation including HB 1332 — which would have cultivated a culture of bullying — does not represent the type of leadership we look for in our legislative champions. We have made that clear to Rep. Ragan and rescinded the recognition,” wrote Michelle Rhee, founder and president of StudentsFirst in a post on the education reform organization’s website.
“Simply put, we must hold our “Reformers of the Year” to a higher standard. So let me be very clear — policies that are intended to single out any student based on their sexual orientation and treat them differently are wrong,” Rhee said.
The rescission of Ragan’s recognition by the group Wednesday came five days after Marcel Neergaard, 11, and his parents started a petition at MoveOn.org urging StudentsFirst to do so. On Thursday afternoon, it had collected 55,034 supporters.
Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday he sees no need for any more gun legislation at the state level, but in general likes the idea advanced at the federal level of expanded background checks for firearm purchases.
“I think we’ve addressed the gun laws we need to (address) in Tennessee right now,” Haslam said in answering a question posed from the audience at the American Legion Auxiliary Volunteer Girls State.
He cited as a capstone of state gun laws legislation signed into law earlier this year that allows handgun permit holders to keep their weapons in a locked vehicle almost anywhere, including the parking lot of employers who prohibit guns on their property.
But at the federal level, the governor said he was open to at least one change.
“I think there has to be a better way to do background checks. … It makes sense and I think we can do it without infringing on people’s Second Amendment rights,” he said.
Asked to elaborate later by reporters, Haslam said sees no need for either expansion or restriction of gun rights in Tennessee.
“If it was my preference, there wouldn’t be any gun legislation brought up in the next (legislative) session,” he said. “Now, obviously, we’ve got 132 people (state legislators) who get to decide what they do. But for me, I think the status quo would be OK.”
He declined to give any specifics on background checks, including whether he would support ending what gun control advocates characterize as a the “gun show loophole” in current federal law. Though background checks are required for purchases at retail gun stores, they are not mandatory for sales at gun show events.
“I don’t have anything in mind,” he said. “I don’t know enough to be specific about that. … I think there are people into that who are further down that road than I am.”
And this from Andy Sher’s report on the governor’s comments: Tennessee Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris on Tuesday called the new law (“guns in parking lots”) an “abomination” that needs to put right to protect gun owners as they commute to and from work.
Meanwhile, Harris said the group has more proposals on its agenda.
“Our to-do list has probably got 30 or so areas on it at this point,” he said. “We’ve always got a list of what do we want to change.”
One issue the group is interested in is what it calls “constitutional carry” law.
It says that as a citizen, Tennesseans don’t need to obtain a state-issued handgun-carry permit. Five states have such statutes while Kentucky has a modified version, Harris said.
Harris noted that during his 2010 campaign for governor, “Haslam said he didn’t mind and would sign” such legislation into law. Then, Harris said, Haslam “immediately flip flopped on that and he’s never flipped back into it.”
Gov. Bill Haslam has been named co-chair of a National Governors Association task force on “health care sustainability” with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat.
Haslam has rejected Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obama- care,” while Oregon was among the first states to accept Medicaid expansion.
But Haslam is still negotiating with federal officials about possibly accepting expansion, if they go along with his notion of using federal money — more than $1 billion in Tennessee’s case — to buy commercial insurance policies. He says recent talks have been “encouraging: and expects a final result by the end of the summer.
Oregon, meanwhile, is operating its Medicaid program under a federal waiver that includes a departure from fee-for-service payments to health care providers in favor of what are called “outcome-based” payments. That is also part of Haslam’s expansion proposal, which he calls the “Tennessee plan.”
An NGA news release says the task force will review and report on “developing innovative Medicaid programs” and declares that governors “must retain flexibility to implement these measures.”
The news release has quotes from both Haslam and Kitzhaber.
“Right now states are looking to change how they do business in order to more effectively serve their constituents,” Kitzhaber said. “This task force will help states sit down together to figure out what’s working and what isn’t and identify how the federal government can best support these efforts.”
“Governors are working in their states to find ways to cut costs when it comes to health care,” Haslam said. “It is our responsibility to examine every possible option in an effort to make sure promising new initiatives can be fully utilized.”
U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. is getting a lot of opinions from a lot of people as he weighs the pros and cons of taxing items purchased over the Internet, according to Michael Collins. Gov. Bill Haslam wants states to have the power to collect the tax, arguing it is money that is already owed. Some small businesses in Duncan’s Knoxville-based congressional district take the same position and say it’s a matter of fairness: They already are required by law to collect the tax and send it to the state, but out-of-state online retailers are not.
Calls to Duncan’s congressional offices, on the other hand, are running roughly 12 to 1 against Internet tax legislation pending in Congress. Even his own staff is divided. A couple of his close advisers are encouraging him to support the bill. Another argues it amounts to a tax increase and that he should vote no.
“I’m feeling a lot of pressure from both sides of this bill,” the Knoxville Republican conceded this week.
So where does he stand? “I don’t know,” Duncan said. “I’m still thinking about it.”
He’s not alone. The three other East Tennesseans in the U.S. House — Reps. Phil Roe of Johnson City, Scott DesJarlais of Jasper and Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah — all said they are undecided about the bill known as the Marketplace Fairness Act. All three congressmen are Republicans.
“From a fairness standpoint, your small local retailers are at a disadvantage and, right now, frankly, you do owe that tax,” Roe said. “The flip side of that is, hey, this is a foul. Nobody wants to pay more taxes.”
Tennessee’s two U.S. senators — Republicans Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — both voted for the bill when it cleared the U.S. Senate earlier this month on a 69-27 vote.